The quality of the democracy in Slovakia worsens
In the second half of July, the Institute for Public Affairs alerted to the worsening state of democracy in Slovakia in its quarterly “Barometer” of the quality of democracy. In the second quarter of 2013, the watchdog rated Slovak democracy with a grade of 2.9 on a scale from 1 to 5, a grade 0.1 worse than in the first quarter. According to the barometer, the reason lies in the worsened state of democratic institutions and the rule of law as well as a deteriorating situation in human and minority rights. The watchdog reported that the government had shown a lack of respect for democratic rules when appointing party members to regulation and control agencies. It also warned about the government’s voiced plans to curb the Freedom of Information Act. The organization argues that freedom of information is already under attack by public officials who have repeatedly sued media for libel, often for hundreds of thousands of euros, sums which threaten to bankrupt individual media. Thus the watchdog spoke out in defense of the pluralism of media, as set out by Article 11 of the European Charter of Rights. The barometer is based on IVO experts’ analyses in four areas: democratic institutions and the rule of law, legislation, human and minority rights and independent and public media. A grade of 1 reflects an ideal state of democracy, corresponding to standards employed by the EU and the Council of Europe.
Slovak watchdogs warn about the state of the judiciary
In the first half of July Transparency International Slovakia published its 2013 Global Corruption Barometer. The survey carried out on a global scale alerted to the fact that one in five Slovak households had paid a bribe in the past 5 years, the third highest figure in the EU. The survey found that bribes were most often paid in the healthcare sector, when dealing with the public administration and the police. The Barometer also once again established the quality of the judiciary as a major issue troubling Slovakia. 69% of respondents thought the Slovak judiciary was corrupt or extremely corrupt. The judiciary as the most corrupt institution was followed by the public administration and political parties, which 66% and 64% of respondents respectively found corrupt or extremely corrupt. The watchdog also pointed out that only a half of Slovaks would be willing to report corruption, which is the 16th worst result among 107 surveyed countries.
Aiming to improve the quality of the ailing judiciary, in mid-July Transparency International Slovakia launched “Open Courts”, a new web portal which pulls together data on courts, judges and their decisions from several sources and republishes them in a more user-friendly way. The motto of the portal is “More Transparency for Slovak Judiciary.” The watchdog argues that the low trust in the Slovak judiciary is an established fact. However, the public discourse suffers from a lack of concrete information, which would allow for a constructive discussion on solutions to the problems. That is why brining more information judges, politicians, journalists, activists and the general public should enable them to improve the situation in the judiciary.
Also alerting to the worrying state of the legal watchdog, Via Iuris published the results of a survey on the influence of the Supreme Court Chairman on the trustworthiness of the judiciary in the second half of July. According to the survey, 58 % of respondents believe the Chair Stefan Harabin contributes to the low trustworthiness of Slovak courts. Only 3 % of respondents found that Harabin makes the judiciary most trustworthy. The watchdog aims to attract attention to the low public trust in courts, arguing that the trustworthiness of judges is crucial to the independence of the judiciary. In this way both Via Iuris and Transparency International Slovakia are working to promote the right to a fair trial by an independent and impartial tribunal, as set out in article 47 of the European Charter of Rights.
In July several watchdogs intervened to ensure environmental protection. The Slatinka association filed an appeal to build a dam in the Slatina river valley with the European Union. Slatinka reported 5170 people from Slovakia and other countries signed their appeal which aims to “protect the environment in the Slatina river valley and stop wasting public resources on the construction of a controversial dam.“ The activists argue that the area, which would be flooded in case a dam was built as planned by the government, is of national and European environmental significance. That is why they lobby for the construction plans to be stopped. On July 17th Slatinka send the appeal to the European Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potocnik, hoping to block the Slovak government’s plans to finance the project with funds from the EU.
Following a prolong public discussion, the group No the Pipeline officially appealed to the Minister of the Economy and to the government to stop the construction of a new oil pipeline through the area of the capital city of Bratislava. The association is asking the government to consider the impact of the construction on the lives of people living in the region, particularly the impact on the freshwater resources in the area. It also calls for a wide public dialogue, which should include the Ministry of the Economy, city officials, experts, NGOs and citizens and appeals to the Minister of the Economy to respect the results of the discussion. Both Slatinka and No to the pipeline are intervening to protect the right to environmental protection as defined by Article 37 of the European Charter of Rights.
Watchdog expertise shaping electoral finance legislation
Two watchdogs provided their expert opinion on the proposal for electoral finance legislation, brought forward by the government in mid-July. INEKO welcomed the proposal as a belated response to the government’s pledge to reform the way elections are financed in Slovakia. The government promised change in early 2012, responding to a public appeal by INEKO and two partner organizations, the Slovak Governance Institute and Transparency International Slovakia. INEKO praised the newly proposed obligation for candidates to use transparent accounts as well as the introduction of clear sanctions for breaches of legislation. However, INEKO criticized the failure to create an independent oversight body or the failure to require more detailed information on candidates’ campaign expenditure.
The Fair-play Alliance took a less forgiving view of the government’s proposal in an article called “Election campaign? Forget fairness”. In the article watchdog criticized the introduction of new expenditure limits, arguing these are disproportionate and ill-justified, as a presidential candidate is allowed to spend only twice as much as a mayoral candidate campaigning in a single city. The Alliance also alerted to the proposed ban on third-party-funded campaigns as well as the ban on publishing election polls in the 21 days leading up to the election.
In the beginning of July analysts from the Institute of Economic and Social Studies joined the M.R. Stefanik Conservative Institute and Initiative for Fair Expropriation in protest against newly passed legislation on expropriation. The watchdogs remind that the right to ownership is one of the pillars of modern western civilization and private property should thus not be expropriated unless absolutely crucial to public interest. The organizations argue that a recent legislative amendment has simplified the process of expropriation and urge the president not to sign the legislation. They have also called on the opposition parties to bring the law to constitutional court and on the parliament to repeal several measures, which deal with the preparation of major investment projects. Suggesting that the new legislation goes beyond expropriation in public interest, the watchdogs have spoken out in defense of the right to property, as defined by Article 17 of the European Charter of Rights.
This text is a result of a research prepared within the project “Powerful Watchdogs” supported by a grant from Switzerland through the Swiss Contribution to the enlarged European Union. The report aims to show the up-to-date information regarding activity of watchdog organizations in a given country. The author refers to the classification on watchdog functions, to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the international concepts of the transparent governance.